Q&A / Jonathon Welch: The next chapter
Photo by kc kratt
Forty-one years is a long time to spend in an accidental career. Jonathon Welch, a native Midwesterner, was a graduate student in the University at Buffalo English Department when he learned that a favorite emporium and student hangout near the Main Street campus, Everyman Books, was going to be closed. In an impulsively fateful move, he and a few like-minded friends, also grad students, decided to buy Everyman. That was in 1975. In 1979, the store was renamed Talking Leaves, and went on to become Buffalo’s longest-lived independent bookstore.
“We couldn’t let that store be sold, or get into the wrong hands,” recalls Welch, white-haired now, and sporting John Lennon glasses, jeans, and a T-shirt on the lanky frame he likely had back in the day. He and wife, Martha, a Connecticut native he met at UB and who became one of the earliest employees of the store, have two children who are now older than their parents were when they started their adventures in bookselling.
Initially, Welch and company set up as a cooperative, with members paying five dollars each for the privilege, and getting a ten-percent discount by working part time. Friends, mostly English Department faculty members, lent them start-up capital. “We were crowd-sourcing before anyone knew what that was called,” says Welch. “I figured I’d work there for about a year. Here I am still. It became a career.”
It also became a more conventional business; within four years, the cooperative idea was abandoned and a regular corporation took its place. By the early 1980s, all the loans were paid off, and the name Talking Leaves—for book pages as “leaves” that talk and impart knowledge—was firmly attached to a new space down Main Street, after a couple of earlier monikers did not stick. In another ahead-of-the curve development, Talking Leaves opened a second branch on Elmwood Avenue.
Things change, and certainly in the bookselling and publishing world, technological advances accelerate evolution. Last spring, Jonathon Welch announced the closure of the Main Street shop, consolidating inventory in the Elmwood location, and warehousing many books, including some personal collections from university professors, in a space downtown. It was a painful but necessary decision for the couple, who are the last original bookstore/cooperative members still standing.
E-books are killing print. What’s your take?
Electronic books are good for certain people, of course. Will they replace print books? No. Do I see the sky falling? No. Do I pay attention to these issues? Yes, I must. But, I get tired of people telling me this new thing is going to destroy the world as we know it. Things we invent are tools we can use; the trick is not to let them use us. I worry more about kids on screens too much and not reading. We cannot afford to lose our literacy.
How do you meet the challenge of behemoths like Walmart and Amazon?
Quality gives way to quantity. Everybody in the bookselling business has been affected by the predatory practices of Amazon. Capitalism thrives on this, the ways to make incredible profits. But, at this point, print is doing way better than anyone expected. The reality is that independent bookstores have made a comeback—seven years ago, there were 1,400 across this country—today there are around 2,300! We have such loyal customers—people do value certain things, like local businesses, and a place for community to gather.
You passed on an academic career. Any regrets?
I like to say I am technically still on a leave of absence from UB. I found out I liked selling books better than graduate school. I can be both student and teacher; what I’ve been doing is a more personal way of teaching—engaging people about ideas and books.
What if you didn’t have Talking Leaves? What else might you be doing?
Maybe I would have been a librarian. Then again, I have always loved gardening and any kind of outdoor work. I like using my mind and my body. I think I would have loved to have been a manual laborer of any sort. If you have an attitude that you’re going to learn something from whatever you do—well, I think one could be happy doing anything. I think what we owe the world is engagement and making it a better place.
Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.